Writing Scenes That Resonate: What I’ve Learned From Patty Griffin’s Songwriting

19 Apr

Before the days of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Britney, there were…well…people known more for singing and songwriting than weird outfits and wicked awesome dancing.  People like Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Sheryl Crow, and Patty Griffin.  Since I am neither a wicked awesome dancer nor a clad-in-bubble-wrap-or-the-occasional-kermit-the-frog-outfit kind of girl, I relate more to this selection of performers than the first.

[Um, speaking of mid-nineties music, I must take a brief detour to tell you that "Gangsta's Paradise" just blasted its way over the coffee shop speakers.  Huh.  I was under the impression that the Ubiquitous Powers That Be had made an unspoken pact to never again let this song meet airwaves.  Guess I was wrong.]

Most of you don’t know this about me, because I hardly blog about it, but music has always been a HUGE part of my life.  I sing, play piano and guitar, and write music.  If I wasn’t pursuing all things author/novels/writing, there’s a good chance I would be more focused on songwriting and performing.  Alas, ever since I decided to aim for master of one rather than jack of all, music has been relegated to hobby status.

That said, I thought it would be fun to combine my two worlds today and write about how music has affected my novel-writing life.  Though I could write about each of the artists I mentioned above, I’m just going to focus on Patty Griffin.  This is because she’s my favorite, and also because I went to her concert last week and have pretty pictures I can include.  Did I mention she’s my favorite?  (I read a rumor somewhere that some of you *ahem, Melissa* have never heard of her.  To this I say, “HERESY,” and also, “I have links for you later.  Check them out because she’s my favorite.”)

So.  Why is she my favorite, and how on earth am I going to marry this to something writing-related, you ask?

Patty Griffin’s songs are like little windows into the souls of people’s lives, poignant portaits of strangers.  She creates scenes with her songs, elicits emotion with just a smattering of well-chosen words, then sings them with conviction.  Her voice is authentic, never forced.  Being familiar with most of her writing has taught me a ton about conveying emotion, and that specific details make a scene resonate.  Patty’s songs inspire me to be more creative in which images I choose and the way I present them; that it’s not how many, but which, words are used.  Words that subtly hint at raw emotion, without being too terribly on-the-nose.

Rather than just tell you vague information, I decided to include specific examples for you.  Deep in the dumpster of YouTube, I waded for an hour (an hour, I tell you!) trying to decide which song I should focus on.  Then, I gave up.  All of her songs are good.

I refuse to leave you with zero examples, and this post would go on until tomorrow if I included everything.  So, as brief as possible, here are three of my favorite examples of things I love about Patty’s songs:

1

Long black limousine / shiniest car I’ve ever seen / the backseat is nice and clean / she rides as quiet as a dream // Someone dug a hole six long feet in the ground / said goodbye to you, then I threw my roses down / ain’t nothin’ left at all in the end of bein’ proud / with me riding in this car and you flying through them clouds // I’ve had some time to think about you / and watch the sun sink like a stone / I’ve had some time to think about you / on the long ride home.

— “Long Ride Home,” from her album 1,000 Kisses

Another line from that song goes, “Forty years go by with someone layin’ in your bed / forty years of things you’ve seen and wish you’d never said / how hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead?” Details of the limousine and the roses and the hole in the ground all just kinda work together to make this sad story of someone who just lost their spouse; in verse 2 (the part quoted in this paragraph) she adds this whole story of regret into the mix, with one simple line.  Painful, and brilliant.

2

It’s not far / I can walk / down the block / to Table Talk / close my eyes / make the pies all day // Plastic cap / on my hair / used to mind / now I don’t care / used to mind / now I don’t care / cause I’m gray // Did I show you this picture of my nephew / taken at his big birthday surprise / at my sister’s house last Sunday / this is Monday and I’m makin’ pies

“Makin’ Pies,” also from 1,000 Kisses

This song has a distinct Eleanor Rigby feel to it: lonely.  The part about the plastic cap on her hair, how she used to mind but now doesn’t care?  Breaks my little heart every time.

3

Diamonds, roses / I need Moses / to part this sea of loneliness, cross this Red River of pain // I don’t / necessarily buy / any key to the future, or happiness but I / need a little place in the sun sometimes or I think I will die // and everywhere is somewhere and nowhere is near / everybody got somebody with their wine and their beer / and I’m just this tragic figure in the corner over here / go home to an empty apartment and call a best friend who is queer

— “Moses,” from Living With Ghosts

Talk about being surrounded by people, but alone, desperate for love and inclusion.

I could go on and on.  I won’t.  If you want to hear more of her stuff, I recommend these two albums (Living with Ghosts and 1,000 Kisses) — not a bad song on either of them. [PS: For some strange reason, 1,000 Kisses isn't on I-Tunes.  Here's a link to the album on Amazon, if you're interested.  I think you can even listen to samples.]

Since I don’t want my hour-long YouTube dumpster dive to be in vain, here are links to two songs that relate to what I’ve told you about here.  First, “Long Ride Home,” which I quoted earlier; second, “Useless Desires,” another song about loneliness with particularly good use of imagery.  (Click here to see lyrics to that one.)

Anyway.  Maybe I’ll share one of my own songs with you guys one of these days.  Until then, happy writing (and listening)!


15 Responses to “Writing Scenes That Resonate: What I’ve Learned From Patty Griffin’s Songwriting”

  1. Megs - Scattered Bits Monday / 19 April 10 at 4:39 pm #

    While I am guilty of the heresy of not knowing the singer, those are powerful lyrics. Music has been a big part of my life and writing life, much in the way you describe it as part of yours (I just figured out it was a hobby before I became proficient in ANY instrument :sighs: ). Oddly enough, my writing voice came out of my sidelining poetry and songwriting, which now informs my fiction so very much. And whenever I think of voice and how words create whole images, I always come back to music and poetry. It’s the metaphor that informs my work, and it’s the symbol I keep coming back to. (For example: the current working title for April Fiction is “Singer, Sing.”)

    This whole post really resonates with me and makes me want to open up my favorite music to write by and figure out what makes it tick and why it makes my words tick so much better. Hmm… If time permits, I might even blog about it! :grins:

    Oh, on a side note: getting ready to post up about an ATC project in the next few days. Hope you might join in!

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:26 am #

      Megs! It’s neat that you have a similar background to me, as far as music goes. I’m so glad this post resonated with you! For me, some music is distracting to the writing process, and some fuels it. Let me know if you post about ‘what makes it tick and why it makes your words tick so much better’ – I’d like to read your thoughts on that, if you take the time to do it. Not that time is abundant, with revisions and your ATC project (perhaps it’s too early, or perhaps I’m just dense, but…what is an ATC project?) Seeing Patty in concert, and writing this post, made me want to write some music again.

      Oh – speaking of projects, have you read Merrilee’s post about the creativity workshop she’s starting soon? Cassie (J.C. Hart) and Melissa are joining in for sure, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to, too. I’ll probably follow in Cassie’s footsteps and do a blog post about it soon. In the meantime, just click on the link to Merrilee’s page and you should see it.

      Hope you’ve had a good week! :)

  2. cynthia Monday / 19 April 10 at 5:00 pm #

    Oh music definitely goes with writing. I try to put Jackson Browne into everything I write.

    Thanks for introducing me to Patty Griffin. I just downloaded about 12 songs of hers from itunes!

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:28 am #

      Yay! A Patty convert! haha :) I’m so glad you like her songs, too. I’ve never listened to Jackson Browne, I’ll have to check him out.

      Also, thank you for the link to that “Heavenly Day” video! That’s a great song, and the video had good sound quality.

  3. Rowenna Tuesday / 20 April 10 at 8:53 am #

    So true! I just posted on folk/traditional music, and plan to babble on about it a bit more this week–it’s on my mind. But I love how so many songs have little glimpses of stories in them, little views through a keyhole that make you want to know more. I’ve been inspired to write a novel based on three verses of an Irish folk song (haven’t written it yet, of course…but three verses gives me enough substance for a whole book :) ). Thanks for sharing these songs–I’ve heard some, but had never really slowed down to pay attention to those fabulous lyrics.

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:35 am #

      What interesting inspiration for your your novel – three verses from an Irish folk song? Very cool.

      Yes – I love the little keyhole views you mentioned. I’ve always been a lyrics sort of girl (as opposed to my sweet husband, who is a bassline-chords-drums kind of man who sometimes doesn’t pay attention to lyrics at all), for precisely that reason.

      Good luck on your novel – have you started it? I mean, I know you said you haven’t written it yet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t started it.

      • Rowenna Friday / 23 April 10 at 1:36 pm #

        Hehe I know–starting and writing can be different! I’ve not invested too much in it yet–I have two other projects I want to finish, at least up to a point, first. But whenever I hear or sing that song, I want to dive into the first draft!

  4. Kristen (Miss Scarlett) Tuesday / 20 April 10 at 9:51 am #

    Patty is a goddess. I can’t imagine a better combination of hauntingly beautiful sound and hauntingly beautiful lyrics. She is incomparable. I once read a quote that was something along the lines of when you die, and the angels are calling you to heaven, it’s Patty’s voice. Thanks for the pictures!! (jealous party of one my table is ready) Oh, and she’s my favorite too :)

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:40 am #

      Kristen! What’s up, new blog friend? :)

      Glad to have a fellow Patty-lover in our midst. After I wrote the post, I realized I’d written so much about the lyrics, I’d hardly mentioned her ‘hauntingly beautiful sound’ – while the words themselves are beautiful, the way she sings them is even more powerful. Haunting is a good word for it.

      Hope to see you around some more. And, PS: glad your oven is working again! I still need to give you that salmon recipe. YUMMMM.

  5. Linda Cassidy Lewis Tuesday / 20 April 10 at 11:16 am #

    Kayla, count me as one who had never heard Patty Griffin, but I have now, and like her music. I’ll be buying the two cd’s you mentioned. The imagery in a good song is powerful inspiration.

    You know a bit of the history of Brevity so I’ll tell you this. One day, when I was just developing the second part of the book, I was driving and put on Joan Osborne. When it came to her song “Crazy Baby” I started crying and knew this was my Jalal.

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:42 am #

      YES! Another convert, hehehe. ;)

      Seriously, though – I’m so glad you enjoyed what you’ve heard, so far, of her music. I’ll need to listen to “Crazy Baby” again, it’s been a while. I want to hear Brevity and Jalal in it. (By the way: SO GLAD you mentioned Joan Osborne! I like her music, and had almost forgotten about her.)

  6. Melissa Tuesday / 20 April 10 at 12:52 pm #

    This makes two consecutive posts where I have made a guest appearance! I’m going to get spoiled!! :D

    I haven’t been able to check the music out yet because I first read this on my phone via email & now I’m at work (…. shh), so the links won’t work. Hopefully tonight, though. I love finding new music, especially from inspiring people. Sometimes I sit back and REALLY listen to songs that aren’t about drugs or sex or whatever, & it’s amazing how they flow. The one that always catches me is a David Crowder song “How He Loves” :

    He is jealous for me,
    Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree,
    Bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.
    When all of a sudden,
    I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory,
    And I realize just how beautiful You are,
    And how great Your affections are for me.

    Even if you aren’t a fan of Christian music, or God himself – you can’t deny how AWESOME that imagery flows. Incredible stuff, I look forward to getting knee deep in some Patty Griffin!

    • owlandsparrow Friday / 23 April 10 at 10:48 am #

      You’re the guest star of the week, did I forget to tell you? Hmm. You’ll probably be in the next one, too, because I’ll be following Cassie’s lead and posting about Merrilee’s workshop.

      I’ve never listened to too much David Crowder, though I have friends at church who do. I’ll have to check that one out, thanks for posting the lyrics! Have you ever listened to Sandra McCracken? Her album The Builder and the Architect is one of my absolute favorites – I love every song on that one, too.

      • Melissa Friday / 23 April 10 at 12:36 pm #

        My assistant must have lost that message. Pardon me while I flail him. I’m sorry, Carlos – this will hurt me more than it hurts you….

        I’m hit or miss with Crowder, but it always comes on the radio (my two year old was singing Ke$ha the other day; guess how quickly I changed radio stations??) & I absolutely love the lyrics. The simplicity is beautiful. Sandra McCracken ALMOST sounds familiar… but I think I’m confusing her with BERT McCracken. I highly doubt they are at all similar! I’ll have to look her up

  7. cynthia Thursday / 22 April 10 at 6:55 pm #

    Discovered this g r e a t video today of Heavenly Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cdnF3NUSCY

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